Certified Catchers Are the Hottest New Pattern of the Season


Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports activities

Earlier this week, my colleague Ben Clemens wrote about Marcus Semien and his spectacular sturdiness. As Ben identified, Semien leads the majors in plate appearances over the past 5 seasons, which has helped him to be probably the most priceless gamers within the sport regardless of his relative scarcity of standout expertise.

The most efficient catcher throughout that very same time interval has been J.T. Realmuto, who leads his fellow backstops by greater than 5 WAR. He’s additionally means forward of the pack with 2,147 plate appearances; Willson Contreras ranks second with 1,879. On the defensive facet, the Phillies catcher is equally outpacing his friends. He has performed 4,084 innings behind the dish, 397.2 greater than Martín Maldonado in second place. That’s the equal of 44 full video games, or Austin Hedges‘ 2023 season thus far. Very similar to Semien, Realmuto encapsulates the favored aphorism “availability is one of the best skill.” He isn’t one of the best defender or one of the best offensive catcher, however he’s good at all the pieces he does, and he does it extra typically than anybody else.

This 12 months, nevertheless, Realmuto has some competitors on the provision entrance. He nonetheless leads the league in defensive innings and plate appearances as a catcher, however he has extra firm on the leaderboards than ordinary. To this point in 2023, almost midway into the season, 13 (13!) catchers are certified for the batting title:

You’d must go all the best way again to 1891 to search out the final season during which 13 catchers completed with the requisite variety of plate appearances to qualify. Even then, it solely occurred as a result of the Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers shut their doorways partway by way of the season, and the Milwaukee Brewers (no, not these Milwaukee Brewers) turned a serious league franchise with solely 36 video games left to play. Their catcher, John Grim, technically certified for the batting title with simply 121 PA to his title.

The most recent date into the 2022 season that 13 totally different catchers had been certified for the batting title was April 15, simply over per week in. From April 23 onward, there have been by no means greater than eight certified catchers, and from June 22 onward, by no means greater than seven. By the top of the 12 months, the variety of certified catchers was down to 5. Solely two certified the 12 months earlier than, and there haven’t been greater than six certified catchers in a season since 2016.

These two graphs present the variety of certified catchers in every season from 1961 to 2022, on a five-year rolling foundation. The primary presents the variety of catchers per workforce, whereas the second exhibits the variety of catchers as a proportion of all certified hitters:

The 2 graphs are virtually similar, and the primary takeaway must be fairly obvious: Recently, catchers have been qualifying at an traditionally low price, each in uncooked quantity and in comparison with their friends at different positions. From 2017-22, we noticed a mean of 4.17 certified backstops per 12 months. That’s lower than one for every division.

At instances, this development has made me surprise if we want a separate threshold of qualification for catchers. This hypothetical threshold wouldn’t permit any additional gamers to contend for the batting title, however it might present us with a universally agreed-upon enjoying time minimal to make use of when evaluating catchers – not dissimilar to how reduction pitchers have their very own innings minimal for qualification.

Take into account this: In 2021, Realmuto ranked final amongst certified catchers in hits, house runs, RBI, batting common, remoted energy, wOBA, xwOBA, and wRC+. He was additionally an All-Star who completed with 4.5 WAR. The phrase “certified catchers” is actually meaningless in that context. The present 3.1 plate look normal that works for different place gamers isn’t at all times so helpful behind the plate.

But if the primary 75-ish video games of the 2023 season are any indication, a brand new threshold won’t be essential in any case. Right here’s that record of certified catchers once more, with just a little extra element this time. I’ve additionally tacked on a pair extra gamers who’re tantalizingly near qualification:

Certified (and Certified Adjoining) Catchers, 2023

Participant Staff PA PA at Catcher %PA at Catcher
Adley Rutschman BAL 319 240 75%
Tyler Stephenson CIN 292 127 43%
Salvador Perez KCR 284 210 74%
Willson Contreras STL 275 196 71%
Jonah Heim TEX 263 238 90%
J.T. Realmuto PHI 260 257 99%
Elias Diaz COL 257 236 92%
Keibert Ruiz WSN 250 245 98%
Shea Langeliers OAK 250 222 89%
Cal Raleigh SEA 240 208 87%
Sean Murphy ATL 235 214 91%
Will Smith LAD 233 208 89%
William Contreras MIL 231 200 87%
Yasmani Grandal CHW 220 182 83%
Gabriel Moreno ARI 201 195 97%

That’s a complete lot of catchers with a combating probability to qualify by season’s finish. What’s extra, there aren’t many cheapies on the record; all however considered one of these guys have truly caught not less than 70% of their video games. Final 12 months, solely three of 5 certified catchers caught 70% of their video games, and solely Realmuto was behind the dish for greater than 85% of his contests.

We clearly have some distinctive lack-of-injury luck to thank for this phenomenon. Twenty-six massive league catchers have frolicked on the injured record this season, however the prime catchers within the sport have saved remarkably wholesome. Of the highest 10 catchers by projected plate appearances coming into the season (per our Depth Charts), just one has frolicked on the injured record: Will Smith, who qualifies anyway. Moreover, of the highest 15 by projected plate appearances at catcher, it’s nonetheless solely Smith who’s been on the IL.

The common DH (and the rising tendency to rotate numerous gamers by way of the DH spot) can be a big issue, though it’s exhausting to say to what diploma. On the one hand, almost all of those catchers have frolicked because the DH, serving to them to rack up extra at-bats. The 4 catchers with essentially the most plate appearances this 12 months have all performed not less than 17 video games at DH. Furthermore, if we solely counted plate appearances at catcher, solely 5 of those guys would nonetheless qualify. That’s not nothing, however neither is it almost as spectacular.

Nevertheless, the opposite 9 certified catchers have spent 9 or fewer video games at DH, and if DH weren’t an possibility, they could have performed a few of these video games behind the plate as a substitute. Moreover, it’s not as if the AL at all times had extra certified catchers earlier than the NL adopted the designated hitter. Over the past 30 non-DH seasons, the AL solely had seven extra certified catchers, and the NL truly had a number of extra within the 5 years earlier than the implementation of the common DH:

In different phrases, whereas the common DH isn’t hurting, I’m inclined to offer extra credit score to the gamers themselves; now we have the privilege of watching an particularly sturdy cohort of catchers this 12 months. It’s extremely unlikely that each one 13 will end with sufficient plate appearances to qualify, however individually, every of them has what it takes.

There’s no query that Realmuto and Salvador Perez can qualify for the batting title. Perez has achieved so six instances in his profession, whereas Realmuto has certified seven years straight. Willson Contreras has additionally certified twice earlier than, and in his case, the one query is how typically he’ll play catcher as a substitute of DH. Yasmani Grandal isn’t on tempo to qualify, however he’s achieved so thrice earlier than, and he’s bought a very good probability to take action in 2023 so long as his current bout of knee soreness doesn’t flip into a bigger downside.

Sean Murphy and Smith each certified for the primary time final 12 months, and every is in a powerful place to take action once more. They’re the highest two catchers by WAR this season, and the Braves and Dodgers are going to need them on the sphere as a lot as doable. Certainly, it was Smith who first impressed this text, when he fought his means again to certified standing final week after struggling a concussion in mid-April.

The opposite 9 catchers on the record would all be first-time qualifiers in 2023. For the sake of this evaluation, let’s additional divide them into two teams: the promising younger names who comprise the subsequent era of gifted catchers, and Elias Díaz.

I don’t imply Díaz any disrespect – fairly the other, in reality. The 32-year-old debuted in 2015 and surpassed rookie limits two years later, however he’s by no means had greater than 381 PA in a season. This 12 months, he has lastly taken a full-time job, and he has run with it. He’s cooled down considerably after a scorching begin in April and Could, however his 103 wRC+ remains to be robust for his place. He’s been probably the most sturdy catchers this season, rating second in video games caught, and he has stayed wholesome all through his profession. With the best way he’s enjoying, the veteran looks as if a very good wager to qualify in 2023.

The opposite eight catchers are all 27 or youthful with restricted massive league expertise. It’s a powerful group of names, and it bodes effectively for the way forward for the place:

The Future Behind the Plate

Identify Age Profession Video games Profession PA Profession WAR
Jonah Heim 27 287 1039 6.4
Cal Raleigh 26 229 803 5.7
Tyler Stephenson 26 262 897 3.3
Shea Langeliers 25 105 403 -0.2
William Contreras 25 210 802 4.2
Adley Rutschman 25 184 789 7.2
Keibert Ruiz 24 203 787 1.9
Gabriel Moreno 23 84 274 1.1

It’s by no means simple to foretell what number of video games a younger catcher will play, however most of those guys have already proven off their sturdiness at one level or one other. Keibert Ruiz ranks second amongst catchers in defensive innings, and he was on tempo to qualify final 12 months till a freak damage ended his season in early September. Adley Rutschman and Shea Langeliers had been each certified final 12 months from the dates of their respective call-ups onward, and each had greater than 502 PA mixed between the majors and Triple-A.

Cal Raleigh and Jonah Heim have each certified over the previous calendar 12 months; since June 23, 2022, Heim has 532 PA and Raleigh simply squeaks in with 515. They each established themselves as frontline catchers final season, and so they’re each extraordinarily vital to their respective golf equipment. These guys will get the prospect to play. Then there’s Tyler Stephenson, who I debated together with on this piece in any respect. Technically, he’s a certified catcher, however he has spent greater than half his season enjoying DH or first base. Nevertheless, with Joey Votto again within the lineup and Spencer Steer hitting so effectively, Stephenson may need to catch just a little extra typically if he desires to get within the lineup for the remainder of the 12 months.

Lastly, William Contreras and Gabriel Moreno are the most important wild playing cards within the dialog. Contreras set a profession excessive with 427 PA final 12 months between Triple-A and the majors, whereas Moreno has by no means had greater than 341 PA in a season. Contreras is the second-best hitter in Milwaukee’s lineup, and he ought to get each probability to qualify so long as he stays wholesome. Moreno, alternatively, has gotten extra enjoying time than anticipated due to Carson Kelly’s lengthy stint on the injured record. Now that Kelly is again on the sphere, the D-backs may take it simple with Moreno.

13 catchers are at the moment certified for the speed stat leaderboards, and two extra are shut behind. If all of them attain that magical threshold by season’s finish, this could be a landmark season in catching historical past. Even when solely half of them can pull it off, it might buck a years-long development of catchers enjoying much less and fewer. Both means, it’s a storyline value following for the remainder of the season.


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